dkSez : : : : : : Don Kahle's blog

Quips, queries, and querulous quibbles from the quirky mind of Don Kahle

Why do people say 'after dark' when what they mean is 'during dark'? After dark would be when it's light again, right? * There are 10 types of people in this world -- those who read binary, and those who don't. * I'm rethinking the whole brown rice thing. What if it's just more white liberal self-hatred? Whole wheat, honey, unbleached flour. All better. Sez who? * Eugene should be HQ for White People for Diversity. We'll fight for diversity to be included in books, which is where we know to look for it. * Give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day, but give a man a pillow, and he'll dream of steak. * What can you say about a state that puts the town of North Bend 225 miles southwest of Bend? We rely on visitors for entertainment.

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Frip Away the Summer Heat

July 31st, 2015 · 3 Comments

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Fifth Friday Footnotes, Follow-ups and Far-Flung Fripperies:

  • So is it settled? Is Eugene Celebration dead? Both its website and Facebook page still instruct us to “stay tuned” and “check back” for 2015 details.
  • Every place seems to be getting some other place’s weather this summer. This summer’s heat has shifted from a condition to be passively endured to an assault we must actively resist.
  • Seven thirty is the new 8 PM.
  • Bottom line: Modern life requires more comfort than comfort food can provide.
  • If you can’t be on time, at least be worth the wait.
  • Summer is peak season for boding. Almost nothing really happens but lots of things bode.
  • Should I look both ways before crossing a one-way street?
  • Are there still settlers anywhere on earth? Or has every place now been settled?
  • I love waterfront architecture because you can’t quite decide which is the front door.
  • Many of us track our days not with appointment calendars, but with pill cases.
  • The number to watch in the global warming trend is not the big one. Afternoon heat matters less than the lack of overnight cooling. When the low temperature for each day rises, heat is building its own momentum.
  • I’d rather deepen my days than lengthen them — unless I can do both.
  • Am I the only one who can’t find anything to like about Haggen’s grocery store takeovers?
  • The worst personal hellscape offers us some pleasure, so we feel no urge to leave it.
  • I’m folding more things into thirds — I sympathize with the half-nots.
  • Individual-sized watermelons are hurting America. Every day brings us one less opportunity to share with our family, friends and neighbors.
  • We should have suspected something when every website’s response button was labeled “submit.”
  • Democracy is engineering its own demise. Efficiency was never its strong suit.
  • Boston has withdrawn its bid for the Olympics. Hey, Vin! Eugene 2024?
  • Take a “No Destination Road Trip.” Just pick a direction and go. You might discover that the arriving mattered less than the departing.
  • President Obama’s stirring eulogy in South Carolina gave us a glimpse of what an amazing former president he might become.
  • We’d understand the Middle East better if we considered all the underlying factions separately: religious, ethnic, linguistic, political, economic, tribal and generational.
  • Or, there’s this. Social upheaval can be predicted best by measuring the percentage of young single males in the population.
  • Which protests do you think business tycoons fear more: “Fight for $15” or “Occupy Wall Street”?
  • Success is easily confused with purpose, like chocolate is confused with fudge. One ingredient — no matter how necessary — cannot replace the recipe itself.
  • One reason young people aren’t voting may be that they’re paying attention. Their votes often won’t change the outcome, so this habit of citizenship doesn’t develop.
  • What other social trends have accompanied the wane of the male undershirt?
  • Americans like hiring “fresh faces” to inhabit the White House. (Only George H.W. Bush was familiar to all Americans, since Nixon.) But they blanch when confronted with the lifetimes of experience represented by military brass.
  • We say we like governors because of their executive experience. It’s more likely that citizens in 49 states see a face with which they are not yet bored.
  • Why can’t extension cords spool neatly? New insulating materials will offer more flexibility. It sure would tidy up my living room.
  • I thought class was defined best by income, but I was wrong. Divide income by effort; the higher the quotient, the higher the class.
  • Policy makers must learn that people won’t naturally care about their public outreach processes until after it’s too late. Process is boring. Product has drama. Outreach must be tailored for how much people will care — not how much they do care.
  • As multi-national companies grow in wealth and influence, loyalties will be tested. Will people align themselves first as citizens or customers?
  • I hope that varnisher never darkens my door again.
  • Give a man a fish and he’ll need tartar sauce. But teach a man to fish, and he’ll need a pole and a reel, a boat, hip boots, lures, a tackle box, a depth-finder, a silly hat … And a bumper sticker that says, “A bad day of fishing is still better than a good day at work.”

==

Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.

→ 3 CommentsTags: Arr-Gee published · Grins · Quips

When the Fix Went In

July 24th, 2015 · 1 Comment

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My first newsroom job was working the traffic desk at Chicago’s NBC television affiliate, three dozen years ago. I answered phones and sorted mail. My seat was at the bottom of a cramped horseshoe, with editors at keyboards flanking both sides. It was the best seat in the house.

Management had recently recruited a young financial reporter. Terry Savage gave up her place on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange trading floor to reach a television audience. She’s since written several books. Her consumer advice is featured in the Sunday business section of this and hundreds of other newspapers.

I caught up with Terry recently to compare our memories of a particular story she did and the deluge of reader response that followed.

It was 1979. America was enduring double-digit inflation. Passbook customers were earning a measly five percent interest on their savings. (Savings-and-Loans were allowed to offer a half percent better. Regulators ruled.)

Terry remembers the tease tag to this day, played between commercials to keep television viewers seated. (There were no remotes back then.) “Earn ten percent interest on your checking account. Stay tuned for the news.”

Over a cup of coffee, she filled in the details for me. “Treasury notes were trading at 12 percent or around that, so paying 10 percent wasn’t really that generous, but regular ‘bungalow people’ didn’t have access to it. They had money, but nowhere to put it. I made that connection for people.”

She offered to send a list of companies offering free checking for accounts with a minimum balance, plus an interest rate that was double what banks could offer. Viewers had only to include a self-addressed, stamped envelope. (Another blast from the past.)

I saw the mail flood in. Terry was still “the new kid on the block.” When she asked for help to stuff those envelopes, she found no takers in the newsroom. I agreed to take a late train home and help her. She bought pizza.

Only this spring did I learn this little tidbit: “Management didn’t like being surprised, so they made me pay for the photocopies out of my own pocket,” Terry laughed. “And photocopies weren’t cheap back then!”

I tell this story now because that moment of licking envelopes marked an important shift in American and world economics.

She gave “bungalow people” access to money market mutual funds, which were relatively new at the time. Most offered a limited number of checks each month to make withdrawals at any time with no penalty.

It proved wildly popular. My late return from Chicago that night was proof of that.

Ordinary investors soon found they had access to the same companies’ “no-load” (no-commission) mutual funds — those not sold by brokers, who at the time earned an 8% up front commission! Suddenly, ordinary people had access to the stock market at low cost.

Until this shift occurred, there were two savings economies. People with plenty of money, sophistication, and spare time invested in the stock market. But regular people steered clear, for several reasons. The additional risk may have been off-putting, but mostly the barrier to entry was too high. They needed too much money to get in and it cost too much money to make trades. Remember, this was decades before the advent of discount brokerage firms.

And it all started with money market mutual funds, which offered a significantly higher rate of return than banks, and free checking, to boot. People loved it, leaving passbook savings behind. Retirement funds followed and soon the distinction between how people saved their money collapsed.

Now there is only one savings economy and corporations are central to it. Whether you’re a schoolteacher with a union-managed retirement plan or a young family saving for your children’s college expenses, you can’t afford to see the businesses around you do anything but succeed and expand.

We pretend that our economy pits the 99 percent against those who live at the top, but the truth is they bought our loyalty to their interests decades ago.

==

Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

→ 1 CommentTags: Arr-Gee published · deekay · Deep

Shame, Blame and Guilt

July 10th, 2015 · 12 Comments

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We don’t know if it was a gaggle of pre-teen boys who started the fire that brought down Eugene’s Civic Stadium. The investigation into the tragedy is continuing. The court system will take the issue from there and these things take time. We rely on defined procedures to provide the answers we so urgently desire.

What we do know right now is that each of us did things when we were that age that can still curl our hair when we remember them. Many of us have memories from those days that we’re hesitant to share with anyone. I know I do. No statute of limitations can protect our inner selves from the memory of our adolescent mistakes.

My son and his neighbor friend played with matches when they were 12. The dry California summer could have brought consequences much worse than they received. I hit puberty during the brief streaking craze of the 1970s and that’s all I’m going to say about that. None of us reach adulthood unscathed by scandal.

We call them “youthful indiscretions,” but I think that whitewashing shows that we’ve over-learned the lesson. The polite veneer we give those bad choices would be less necessary if we all admitted our wrongdoings, that we wish we could undo them, and that we regret the consequences they brought on others.

It feels less like a club when we learn that everyone is a member.

And so, right now, we can discuss amongst our adult selves the regrettable past that lurks in each of us. We can parse for our own good the difference between blame, shame and guilt.

We gather the three together during times of trauma, believing certainty will give us a comfort that comes with finality. Anyone with an inner life eventually learns it doesn’t work that way. Call it grief, or post-traumatic stress, or a ghost, if you like — our memories shape our identity and our identity shapes our actions. We’re always coping with the past and the present at once.

The best we can do is take a breath, slow down our reaction, tease the factors apart, and keep a watchful eye.

Guilt in this instance will be determined by our purposely ponderous system. If there was a ringleader, that will come clear. If others helped, or if some tried to resist, we’ll learn those details in time. Special accommodations will be considered if youth is a factor. Consequences will be meted out according to the rules we’ve designed for ourselves.

Shame, on the other hand, is not so prescribed. Shame is a social construct — it’s left to us to determine who will be shunned and who will be helped. After a 50-year-long hiatus, shame is making a comeback on the public policy stage. Scolding the people who make bad choices is regaining popularity, despite everything we’ve learned about how we’re co-evolving one another’s identities.

Societal shame and shunning must be reserved for only the most extreme circumstances. Tearing the fabric of human connectedness is the harshest penalty — capital punishment for the social self.

Guilt must always be determined. Shame should almost never be used. And between those bumpers lies responsibility. Here we all have a role to play.

A healthy society spreads responsibility widely. If we look out for one another, we’re less likely to look down on anyone. Any of us can choose to share the burden of blame. The fence could have been taller. Our debate could have been shorter.

The stadium fire was not the first consequence. A criminal trial won’t be the last. Fortunately in this case, no human harm must be weighed against the choices that were made.

Children don’t naturally anticipate the consequences of all their actions. Parents, teachers, neighbors and friends all help fill in those blanks. If there were children involved in this public tragedy, they’ll continue to grow and learn about themselves and the world.

Children are working out how they’ll fit into the world we already inhabit. Every one of them needs our help. We can’t let that structure be burned down too.

==

Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.

→ 12 CommentsTags: Arr-Gee published · Chamber · Civic · Deep · Psycho · You-gene

Fireworks Flight Gives Great Overview

July 9th, 2015 · 4 Comments

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I may have one of the oddest hobbies around. For the last few years, I have attempted to watch July 4th fireworks from a window seat of a commercial flight. It requires plenty of planning, certain lifestyle sacrifices, and more than a little bit of luck.

My first attempt failed because clouds curtained off any show from above. Last year, my flight landed too early. But last Saturday night was nearly perfect in execution. Although the exercise required nothing more strenuous than craning my neck, I felt deep satisfaction from having executed each step of my arduous plan.

Municipal firework displays usually begin around 9 p.m. and finish no later than 10. These times can vary depending on a town’s proximity to a time-zone boundary. Unlike so many things in modern life, the clock time matters less than the sky time. The summer sun sets in Toledo, Ohio, 35 minutes later than in Washington, DC., so fireworks begin later as you travel west within each time zone.

The first task is to find a flight that will take you over populated areas just after dark. You want a flight heading due west. Airliners travel around 500 miles per hour. Time zones across our latitudinal swath of the globe are roughly 750 miles across, so traveling west will slow the passage of clock time.

Finding a westbound flight that will be in the air at the right time wouldn’t have been too difficult, but I insisted on flying between two cities where I wanted to be in July — Baltimore and Chicago. The Baltimore airport was virtually empty last Saturday night. Dusk on July 4 is like Christmas morning. Wherever you were going, that’s the time when you hope you will already be there.

I booked my flight. I chose my window seat, not above the wing, on the right side of the plane, looking north. The next three variables were outside my control, so all I could do was hope.

If the flight was delayed for any reason, that could foil my plan. A child or a nervous talker in the seat beside me could force me to choose between my hobby and their attention. And then there was the biggest variable of all — weather. All three broke in my favor. The flight got out on time, the seat beside me was vacant, and the afternoon storm was blowing out to sea behind us as we were lifting off.

I counted about 150 different fireworks displays during our 90 minutes of flight, not including the block-by-block ruckus in South Bend, Indiana, as we made our approach into Chicago. South Bend, where fireworks are legal, looked like colored popcorn under glass from where I was sitting. Then everything went dark for a minute or two as we crossed the southern edge of Lake Michigan before Chicago presented my own private finale.

In case you’re tempted to take up this hobby, I should warn you that the displays themselves are not very impressive from an airliner’s cruising altitude. If you stand up straight, each display appears roughly the size of one of your toe nails — if they made polish that bursts and glows.

Gazing down over Pittsburgh and Cleveland and Toledo and towns in between, I marveled how each little village along the way was celebrating for themselves what the day means to them. None was necessarily aware of what others were doing, nor would it matter if they were. Like God answering prayers or Google performing searches, each expression was its own. But from above, the parts gathered into a surprisingly satisfying whole.

It certainly helped that it was a Saturday night, with few of the earthbound petitioners worried about the next morning. Police departments have to be careful not to show too heavy a hand these days, so the citizen displays may have been a bit more exuberant than in recent years.

An improving economy here and slowing growth in China gave Americans more bang for their buck — more work, more firework. Whatever their specific reasons, Americans felt like celebrating. Even from 30 thousand feet above, it showed.

==

Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

→ 4 CommentsTags: arr-gee thumbnails · Civic · deekay · Deep · Small World

Supreme Court Prefers Self-Governance

July 3rd, 2015 · 5 Comments

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As the Supreme Court wrapped up its season, the swings and the misses behind the final scores can get lost behind the headlines. Chief Justice John Roberts continued his fierce protection of the institution he’s been charge to lead.

In his dissent of the majority’s ruling to allow same-sex marriage in all 50 states, Roberts wrote: “If you are among the many Americans—of whatever sexual orientation—who favor expanding same-sex marriage, by all means celebrate today’s decision. Celebrate the achievement of a desired goal. Celebrate the opportunity for a new expression of commitment to a partner. Celebrate the availability of new benefits. But do not celebrate the Constitution. It had nothing to do with it.”

He’s almost right. “Life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” is in the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution. Same with “all men are created equal.” The Constitution is a mechanism by which we hope to attain our Declared and Independent ideals.

What Roberts may have meant, if his drafting was inartful, was that this ruling and others like it should invoke no celebration for self-governance. If the Supreme Court’s role is to call strikes and balls, Roberts may rightly bemoan the electorate’s modern refusal to swing the bat.

Roberts would have preferred that states settle their own scores with citizens seeking to marry. In another dissent issued the next day, he rehearsed how the system is supposed to work: “The [17th] Amendment resulted from an arduous, decades-long campaign in which reformers across the country worked hard to garner approval from Congress and three-quarters of the States. What chumps! Didn’t they realize that all they had to do was interpret the constitutional term ‘the Legislature’ to mean ‘the people’? The Court today performs just such a magic trick with the Elections Clause.”

And yet, two days earlier, he saved Obamacare by using the same magic trick by interpreting the phrase “established by the state” to mean “established by the state or the federal government.” Roberts rightly scolded Congress that the Affordable Care Act offers “more than a few examples of inartful drafting.”

Congress could have remedied the problem by simply amending the bill, but they refused. They could have bowed to public opinion (as they and then-President Clinton did just a few years ago) and drafted a New Defense of Marriage Act to right the wrong of marriage inequality, but they didn’t. The bat rested on the shoulder.

In both cases, Congress left the legislating to the Supreme Court, which is what Roberts insists we should not be celebrating. And again, he’s right. Congress is broken and self-governance is imperiled. The president pledges to improve people’s lives with his phone and his pen. The Supremes willingly inject common sense to inartful legislative prose. The people are not consulted, much less represented.

How did 435 representatives become so unrepresentative? In a word, gerrymandering.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, gerrymandering is the modern version of ballot stuffing, but it’s perfectly legal because the “stuffing” now includes each vote’s voter. Stuffing your ballot boxes is not legal, but stuffing your district with your preferred voters is.

Arizona voters decided they’d had enough of that, so they drafted and passed a referendum that created an Independent Redistricting Commission. The lawmakers sued, citing the Constitution’s words, but they lost.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the opinion, insisting that the referendum was a legitimate legislative tool. When the people legislate for themselves, they are a legislature. Arizona voters prevailed without “the arduous, decades-long campaign” that Roberts would have preferred, but the system cannot fix itself when the system is what’s broken.

If Roberts chooses to celebrate the Constitution, he may find comfort in its preamble. His court can play a significant role to “ensure domestic tranquility.” States will follow Arizona with similar election reforms. People can marry whomever they choose. Those who are sick will get affordable care.

The mechanics of governance may not have worked as well as Roberts would have liked, but spirit of the Constitution prevailed. “We the people” are forming a more perfect union.

==

Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

→ 5 CommentsTags: arr-gee thumbnails · Pure Pol

Saving Civic’s Spirit

July 3rd, 2015 · 7 Comments

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I come to bury Civic, not to raze it. The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.

The sooner we put this week’s devastating fire behind us, the faster we’ll rekindle the pride and collective momentum that its last days portrayed.

Civic’s story focuses naturally on its origin and lifespan. Any of us would be satisfied if we touched as many lives in our 77 years. We may still have among us a few of those citizens who voted to tax themselves in May 1938 to pay off the structure’s outstanding liens. Some of the timber families who donated the materials have never left. Together, they embodied then the single-name we gave for its result: “Civic.”

The past few months have matched those glorious beginnings. Again, the city government stepped up, issued a clarion call for its citizens and business owners to do something civic by doing something for Civic. The call was answered, against all probability. We’re sometimes a town that doesn’t care about the odds. Maybe we’re just not that good at math, or maybe we believe in our core that our passions will carry the day.

It doesn’t much matter what the root of this peculiarity is — it’s deep inside us and we recognize it. It’s the good that’s in our bones.

“It’s like a lot of good things that happen in communities,” Mayor Kitty Piercy said in early April. “It takes real­ly dedicated people who put in a lot of time and use their resources and contacts to try and make things move.” She may have said “communities,” but I believe she meant “this community.”

If we’re to stay true to our best selves expressed in Civic in May 1938 and again in April 2015, we must move forward with the same collective resolve. The next few months must match the last few.

The forces that dedicated themselves to saving Civic envisioned sports and recreation continuing on the site. Soccer is part of the vision, as is a field house for Kidsports. We must honor the vision and dedication of those people. (Sorry, Fred Meyer.) We want only one thing more — whatever we call what rises there, it should represent what we consider “civic.”

Sadly, we now have a leveled playing field — options that may not have seemed feasible before might make more sense now. We have an opportunity here and now to survey our situation and ask again some questions that may be answered differently now.

Eugene just hosted the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships. University of Oregon won both the men’s and women’s NCAA Track and Field Championships just a few weeks ago. Phil Knight announced he’s planning to step down as Chairman of the Board for Nike. Vin Lananna unveiled plans for an eight-city professional track and field league. Michael Schill has arrived on campus amid hopes that he can lead the University of Oregon’s $2-billion capital campaign as its 18th president.

Taking all those bits of news together, here’s a question I find myself asking: Is now the time, and is 2077 Willamette Street the place, to build an indoor track and field complex? UO became a football powerhouse only after building the Moshofsky Center in 1997, giving athletes and coaches an indoor training facility.

A similar gift to the track and field program may fit this time and place perfectly.

Schill knows that fundraising relies on a lead gift — one that creates a buzz for the whole campaign. Creating a cousin for Hayward Field and a year-round Tracktown USA might do exactly that.

It must also accommodate soccer and Kidsports, and not look from the street like a misplaced Costco. It must excite both university donors and neighborhood leaders. It must become the hub of activity envisioned by the Eugene Civic Alliance. It must stand as a monument of collaboration between the college and the town — in this college town.

It must embody the good that is now interred with the bones of what was — and must become again — our beloved Civic.

==

Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs here.

→ 7 CommentsTags: Arr-Gee published · Chamber · Civic · Urban Design · You-gene

Quiet Desperation Getting Less Quiet and More Desperate

June 26th, 2015 · 1 Comment

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Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden in 1854: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Lately that desperation has become less quiet. Places and names tell the whole story, over and over again.

Ferguson, Missouri: Michael Brown. Staten Island, New York: Eric Garner. North Charleston, South Carolina: Walter Scott. Baltimore, Maryland: Freddie Gray.

And now Eugene, Oregon: Brian Babb.

Babb differs from the others in two ways that shouldn’t be important, but are. First, he had a gun. Second, he’s white.

Babb fired a shot into the floor of his room almost an hour before police arrived. He told his therapist he wanted “to see how it sounded.” He drew his gun again when confronted by police, prompting a fatal bullet in response.

If only one detail had differed, a thousand other details would then be changed, followed by a thousand more and another thousand after that. Life would have gone on. Instead, there’s an end, but only for him. Others must go on, hoping to find the tiniest shred of sense in what remains. Quiet desperation becomes contagious.

Our nation seems to go through spates of tragedies that echo each other, amplifying our collective pain. Shootings go from schools to shopping centers to movie theaters. Epidemics spread from ebola in Brooklyn and New Hampshire to measles at Disneyland.

The latest pattern shows the troubled and defenseless, losing their lives to police who are trying to maintain order. With each successive instance, the pressure mounts for charges to be filed against the police, as if that will somehow even the ledger.

It’s horrifically sad that retribution so often equates with justice. People exult in bloodlusty victory when police are charged with criminal intent, as if two lives shortened is somehow better than one. Often it’s the people closest to the victim who are the ones begging protesters to settle themselves down.

This is not an unimportant detail.

Those who knew the victim cannot readily embrace the cause. The grief about what happened comes first.

Never confuse the map with the territory. Only they have actually been to the place that others describe so well. If only we could listen first to those who have earned the right to speak, but our media are less discriminating or follow different rules than you and me.

They talk as if directly to us. They speak as if they knew the man. Neither is true, but our mental filters can’t quite keep up with what we already know. Like 1960s housewives afraid to offend the Fuller Brush salesman at the door — we let them in, knowing that we shouldn’t.

The desperation drama blares before us. The places and names change, but the story stays the same. Police seek to maintain order. Operation fails. R.I.P., the disaffected and disempowered. If only things were different.

African Americans have a special burden. For a century and a half, we’ve conflated race and class, performing an emotional shell game, hiding the pea under the complaint not given. If race is the obstacle, then it would go away with economic improvement. If poverty is the root, well, there are plenty of poor whites who don’t take to the streets. Each solution is designed to mismatch the problem.

But now the President and First Lady have self-identified as Black, even if it’s only literally three-quarters true. Class doesn’t reach any higher than the White House, so the desperation has a new clarity. The ache has become a pierce — an entirely different kind of pain.

On the other side of the scrimmage, police must keep order against two adversaries in unwitting cahoots. The disaffected are actively opposing with rocks held by nothing-to-lose fists, while the unenthused are holding their phones, wishing only for peace and quiet — but mostly quiet — so they can finish their business at hand.

Strategic asymmetry has been studied only in warfare, so it’s off to war they go, in armored vehicles, using military formations, dressed in battle fatigues. It looks like war.

Another Thoreau adage from Walden comes to mind: “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.”

==

Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

→ 1 CommentTags: arr-gee thumbnails · Civic · Deep · Media · Psycho · Pure Pol · You-gene

Public Relations is Helping/Killing Journalism

June 26th, 2015 · No Comments

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Modern newspaper economics offers the confounding conundrum. Most newspapers are struggling mightily to maintain both their readership and the advertisers who follow those readers. But not all newspapers hew to that troubling trend. The danger appears most pronounced for virtually all newspapers in the middle.

At the very top of the readership demographic, some large metropolitan newspapers are finding new causes for optimism. The New York Times and now the Washington Post are innovating at an accelerated pace, hoping to reach a new stability that The Wall Street Journal already has found.

Sophisticated readers in large numbers, unbound by limits of location, are giving these companies reason to hope that their on-line presence can one day be rewarded with the same loyal following — among readers and advertisers — that their newsprint editions have earned in the past.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, small newspapers seem to be weathering the storm of the Internet pretty well. Some put their content online for free. Some charge for it. Others keep it out of the Internet’s maw altogether.

Warren Buffett, no slouch at forecasting economic trends, raised more than a few eyebrows when he went on a spending spree, buying up dozens of small-town newspapers. The relative health of community newspapers has gone largely unnoticed because their mastheads have names that no one would recognize.

We’re transfixed by the terrible plight of almost all the newspapers in the middle — too small to garner a national audience, but too large to run photos of every softball league champion. The Internet may not be to blame.

I worked for daily newspapers when they became overrun with efficiency-minded consumer product managers. I was in the neighborhood when the Los Angeles Times was eviscerated by Mark Willes, a manager who learned his craft at General Mills selling Cheerios. He earned his nickname, the “cereal killer,” by laying off hundreds in the largest newsroom on the West Coast.

In my last six months working for a group of daily newspapers on the eastern edge of Los Angeles County, we had chocolate cake on eight different Fridays. Chocolate cake meant somebody was leaving — retiring, taking a buy-out, heading in a new direction, leaving to find themselves. (It was southern California, after all.)

Every one of those chocolate cakes was for a journalist leaving the profession. Six had taken jobs in public relations. Five of those were going to work for an agency or company that had been part of their beat as a reporter.

Meanwhile, our newsroom fax machine was replaced by three fax machines. More than half our ex-reporters were writing their stories for new bosses and faxing them to the newsroom as press releases. We hadn’t lost reporting talent. We had outsourced it.

But we didn’t explain any of this to the public. Since a newspaper’s first product is trust, this was not a small oversight. It may be what is quietly killing newspapers everywhere. There’s now an extra layer between much of what happens in a town and the stories we publish. There’s still proverbial shoe-leather involved, but it’s no longer on the foot of the newspaper.

People notice when there’s a reporter in the room, so it shouldn’t be surprising that they also notice when there’s no reporter in the room. And yet a story appears in the newspaper offering quotes and as-if-you-were-there details. If they were there and they know the newspaper wasn’t, they’re right to wonder who was.

They may question the newspaper’s veracity then about other things that are described on its pages. They can read about the same events from other sources, sometimes carrying the exact same quotes. A blogger may have an unusual perspective on the event, but at least he or she was in the room.

Very small newspapers have not learned to rely on press releases,. The largest newspapers have staff to pursue stories on their own or readers sophisticated enough to understand the role public relations plays in newsgathering.

Public relations gave newspapers efficient access to the skilled labor of storytelling, but at a terribly high price.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

→ No CommentsTags: arr-gee thumbnails · Deep · Media · Simple

Self-Driving Cars Have Arrived (Almost)

June 26th, 2015 · 6 Comments

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They say self-driving cars are coming. I say they’re here. I rented a car last week that didn’t leave very much of the driving to me.

My own car is 20 years old, so the changes I experienced this week have probably been emerging slowly. I’ve been technologically asleep when it comes to automobiles, but sometimes Rip Van Winkle can see things more clearly because nothing helps awareness like a couple of good decades’ sleep.

First, the car wouldn’t let me start it. There’s a key, but not for the ignition. In roughly the same place there’s now a button you press to start the car, with a light that indicates whether it’s on. I hit the start button, but it wouldn’t start unless my foot was pressed against the brake pedal. Thankfully, when the car refused to start, it didn’t know where my foot was; only that it wasn’t where it needed to be.

Once the engine was running, I could back out of my parking space. Once in reverse, the screen that told me where to put my foot now showed me where the car was going. Superimposed over the camera image, the car drew lines to show where the car would end up if I continued, not unlike how commentators use grease pencils to embellish sport replays. The car did all the work. There was nothing for me to turn my pretty little head about.

Admittedly, the actual driving was still up to me. I could set the cruise control if I wanted to give up this small modicum of control, but I wasn’t about to do that. Meanwhile, the car was busy deciding where the air conditioner should blow its air, based on which seats were being pressed on.

Door locks went down as soon as the car started moving. Whether that was locking others out or me inside was not a question I dared to ask.

The passenger side air bag was automatically disengaged when no one was sitting there. When somebody was, the car chimed like a department store elevator until the seat belt was fastened. I tried to trick the car by piling books and luggage on the seat beside me, but it wasn’t fooled. Somewhere in its circuitry, it was snickering at me.

It told me how far and how fast I was driving. It showed my fuel efficiency — or rather, its own fuel efficiency when driven by the likes of me.

Once it started getting dark, I worried that I didn’t turn the lights on. Later, when I saw they came on automatically, I worried that couldn’t turn them off. Then I worried that I had too little to worry about. When I stopped the car, the headlights went off and the dome light came on. These cars have been watching us. They can predict our every move.

I exited the car, feeling disconcerted. Then I heard a rhythmic beeping. There were no other cars around, so I knew I was now in conversation with my rental car. Like a crying infant, I wanted to ask what was wrong. I checked the tires. They didn’t need to be changed. I had noted the fuel gauge. It wasn’t hungry. It wasn’t too warm or too cold. So what exactly was the problem?

The car had been uncooperative when my foot was in the wrong place. Now it was unhappy for some other reason. We were in conversation about my personal failings. The car and I were in an uncomfortable relationship, in a parking lot. Cars have gotten smarter, but this bordered on sentience.

It turns out I had left the key in the center cupholder. I wondered if its rhythmic beeping was Morse code for “You moron!” The key and car talk to each other, using a radio signal to determine whether my finger on the button and my foot on the brake should start the engine.

This sudden surge of technological competence leaves me feeling infantilized. I haven’t yet filled its tank with gas, but I’m pretty sure one of us will want to be burped afterwards.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

→ 6 CommentsTags: arr-gee thumbnails · Deep · Grins

We’ve Traded Curves for Cliffs

June 26th, 2015 · No Comments

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We’ve traded the curve for the cliff. The short-term effect has to do with how we’re taught, but the long-term difference is about how and what we learn.

Put aside for five minutes the real and tangible loss of play and curiosity when teachers are incentivized to “teach to the test.” Never mind for a moment whether the federal government should ever have stuck its pudgy hand into the cookie jar of education. Those debates are worth having, but not today.

Oregon just made it easier for families and children to opt out of standardized tests. Oregon House Bill 2655 will allow children to skip the tests for the next six years with no more reason from parents than that the tests will “harsh the bliss” of their loved one. The deed is done.

Lake Woebegone has gotten awfully crowded. Everyone wants to live in a place where all the children are above average. But that’s a world where average is no longer average, and it’s not as pleasant a place as parents and others imagine.

I grew up in a time where teachers and students understood that grades would be given on a curve. An average grade was a C, meaning it was the most common. If you got an A or an F, it told you something about your place in the class. You were exceptional — but more importantly, the world adhered to a recognized order.

Curves are navigable. Cliffs are not.

Today the only grade students expect is an A. Everyone expects to leave with a trophy. All the children are above average. Failing to get an A is just that — failure. A grade has become a commodity. Students are consumers, and the grade is what they get for their money — or their parents’ money. The learning itself is lost in that equation.

We start with the assumption of excellence, five stars, thumbs up, blue ribbon, first place. Any outcome less than that is a severe let-down. There’s nearly perfect and there’s utter failure, with nothing in between. If you’re not soaring above the standards, you’re plummeting to rock bottom.

I’m not defending standardized tests. I’d be happy if we could do away with tests, but I don’t want to get rid of standards.

Grades and scores and ratings have gained such influence over people’s lives, it’s all starting to feel like fate. Your scores get you into a school. Your GPA gets you a job. Your credit rating gets you a house.

It doesn’t stop with scholastics. It’s seeping into our daily lives. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote this month that Uber drivers were avoiding her because she had earned a user rating of “only” four stars. She learned that she had to be more chatty with drivers to get her “grade” up.

When somebody as successful as Dowd is changing her behavior with taxi drivers, we know we’re wandering into a place where none of us are safe. Getting your grades up is becoming a way of life.

Dowd revealed that drivers drop their passengers with an invented departure greeting: “Five for five!” Translation: “I’ll give you five stars if you give me five stars.” That’s teaching to the test.

If only perfect scores are acceptable, the scores themselves won’t be valuable for very long. If everybody’s above average, average eventually will catch up. Four stars isn’t good enough, not even for Maureen Dowd.

Whatever the self-esteem movement believes it may have accomplished, the esteem movement continues to wield its influence. Standardized tests represent some attempt — however flawed — to show students how they compare with their peers on a range of subject matters.

The tests themselves can always be improved. Accountability for teachers and schools must be adjusted for sociological and economic factors that are sometimes difficult to measure. We can never stop trying to lighten government’s heavy hand.

But we must find a way to keep the scores themselves, and the standards they represent. Opting out of the tests won’t protect children from eventually finding out how they compare against whatever standards have been set.

==

Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

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